Tessa Jowell publicly criticises Labour party for publicly criticising itself

An impression of "toxic disunity".

Tessa Jowell has warned that attacks on Ed Milliband from inside the Labour party are creating an impression of "toxic disunity".  In a piece for the Observer today she writes that Labour's "so-called summer crisis" had been helped a great deal by Labour's own members, too open in attacking their leader. These were people, she says, "who should know better", as "publicly offered criticism is only ever destructive". It remains to be seen whether Jowell's own publicly offered criticism will do the trick. She writes:

There are complementary rights and obligations when it comes to the leadership of the Labour party: anyone may stand for the leadership, but once the winner is chosen, he or she is entitled to the loyalty and support of the party at every level. "Loyalty is what keeps the boat afloat; disloyalty the rock against which it breaks. And disloyalty comes in many shapes, most of which artfully ape the gestures of friendship. There is, however, nothing constructive in publicly delivering "helpful advice" which could be much better delivered quietly in private. For the public it creates an unappealing sense of toxic disunity.

She draws a distinction between Westminster's media coverage and the business of politics, suggesting, in her piece for a national broadsheet, that the party stay away from the former:

We are not commentators on a Westminster game of who is up and who is down, of who has coined the best soundbite or delivered the sharpest put-down. We are, rather, participants in a political contest whose outcome will affect the lives of millions of people. It is not the political class but our constituents who will pay the price if we allow David Cameron and the Conservatives another term in office – to squeeze living standards as prices rise faster than wages, to abandon families with elderly relatives and children waiting on trolleys in hospitals, or to take no responsibility towards our those of our young people who are without jobs or hope of a home of their own.

This comes as Meg Hillier, a senior Labour party backbencher, criticises the Labour party for its lack of an "Alistair Campbell-style figure", in senior advisory circles.

Tessa Jowell. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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